Without question, New Year’s (o-shogatsu) was, and to this day remains, the most important holiday within the Japanese festival calendar. Traditionally, New Year’s Day meant much more than just the beginning of another arbitrary yearly round, as it does in the modern West.
The author, Dan McKee is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Japanese literature program at Cornell University, NY. He has a Master of the Fine Arts degree from Syracuse University, as well as an M.A. from Cornell. Dan McKee is presently writing a dissertation on “surimono as a literary practice in nineteenth century Edo.”
The New Year’s Festival and Japanese Prints
Indeed, New Year’s marked the rebirth of nature itself, as it was thought of as the first day of spring. And, due to the traditional manner of figuring age, by which one counted the yearly cycles one had been a part of, New Year’s was a “birthday” of sorts for everyone, the day on which all people added one to their ages (a baby born near midnight on the last day of the 12th month would thus be age 2 within an hour of its birth.)
But the importance the Japanese give to the New Year’s holiday can perhaps be most accurately attributed to a deep appreciation of the pure, fresh and unsullied that the beginning of a new cycle, both seasonal and personal, represented. Every activity, from bathing to handwriting, eating to dressing, had a renewed importance at the New Year, for these seemingly mundane actions would set the tone for the coming year. In the special, sacred time of beginnings, these and other activities were ritually arranged to have auspicious repercussions, while pleasurable entertainment and legends set a happy mood for the days to come. This short essay will examine some New Year’s practices and beliefs as they relate to ukiyo-e woodblock prints.
Re-conceptualizing “New Year”
February 9, 2005, January 29, 2006 and February 18, 2007 will mark the beginning of what is now commonly known as “the Chinese New Year”. Based on lunar cycles rather than solar, the Chinese New Year festival begins on a night with a new moon, and ends 15 days later, on a night with a full moon. The Chinese lunar calendar is said to be the world’s oldest, purportedly having measured time for over 4500 years. Until the modern era, this calendar functioned as the standard for most of East Asia, including Japan, so what we now call “Chinese New Year” was in fact New Year in traditional Japan as well.
It is important to remember that by the lunar calendar New Year could fall anywhere between late January and mid February in the solar calendar, and not to think of traditional New Year as corresponding with our January 1. Indeed, New Year in old Japan was not a single day, but a half-month celebration. And, for most of Japan, this period was not the dead of winter, but, although still cold, the time when nature began to show signs of rebirth. Human beings thus also engaged in activities that would mark a fresh start, or “rebirth” in the New Year.
Cleaning Up Minds, Homes, Debts and Spirits
“The famous migrations of ukiyo-e artists like Hokusai and Kunichika from residence to residence probably had much to do with finances.”
“In with the new” first requires “out with the old”, so the close of each year is devoted to an elimination of dust and debts, worldly and spiritual. Troubles, pains and complexities can pile up in the space of a year, meaning that in order to start the coming year with a fresh spirit, it is first necessary to forget the old year.
Bonenkai, or “year forgetting gatherings”, typically accomplish their mission with lots of sake, and this seems as true of Edo period parties as it is of contemporary. In the home, cleaning away the old year means a furious sweeping from top to bottom, as seen in a comic pentaptych by Utamaro in the British Museum, showing courtesans giving their house a complete makeover, including the removal of several reluctant patrons.
Although scenes of debt collection, being less than memorable moments, do not appear in ukiyo-e as they do in fictional works by Saikaku and others, the famous migrations of ukiyo-e artists like Hokusai and Kunichika from residence to residence probably had much to do with finances, for one way of escaping local year-end debts was to move away to another area.
New Year’s Eve (o-misoka) was also a time for spiritual cleansing, and today many visit temples to hear the bell toll 108 times, one for the elimination of each human vice.
Making Mochi and other Delicacies
|Emperor and Empress Meiji with New Year Dishes, ca. 1878
|Kuniaki II Utagawa 1835-1888
On the practical side, as New Year’s was supposed to be a time of rest and celebration, preparations had to be made to insure that there was enough food made to last through the holiday. New Year’s foods were traditionally made to last, utilizing pickled, hard and salty items that would not go bad over the lengthy holiday. Many of these foods also had special auspicious meanings, often through puns on their names, with fish eggs implying fertility, black beans hard work, sea bream celebration, and thick seaweed felicitousness.
One common New Year food, also used as a household decoration, was mochi, a sticky rice cake that became hard on the outside when dried. Three round, plate-like mochi cakes were piled on one another to make kagami-mochi, which was offered to the Gods on the family altar. On the eleventh day of the year, this mochi would be removed, broken into pieces by hand, then cooked and eaten in various ways, either with sweet beans (shiruko) or in a miso soup called o-zoni. This practice developed specifically in samurai households, though most New Year practices can be traced back to the Imperial Court.
Kagami or “mirror” mochi, can often be seen in prints on the New Year, such the first print in one of Kunisada’s Go-seku (five seasonal festivals) sets. The process of making mochi, though strenuous, was rather fun and special, and also figures in a number of woodblock prints, especially nineteenth century triptychs. First sticky, cooked rice was put in a hard wooden container, then pounded regularly with a large mallet until it achieved a regular consistency. This “dough” was then divided, shaped and allowed to dry, after which it assumed a rock hard texture.
Mochi, when placed in soup or baked, assumes a consistency like melted mozzarella cheese, and can be tricky to eat. One sad irony of modern Japan is the casualty rate given each year for older people who choke on this glutinous food, being unable to chew it properly. Nevertheless, whatever its “dangers”, mochi remains one of the most special of New Year’s foods.
Catching the First Rays
|New Year’s Outing
|by Keishu Takeuchi 1861-1942
One common traditional New Year activity still practiced today is to wait up through the night to see the first sunrise of the New Year. The mythical tale explaining the seasons, in which the sun goddess Amaterasu hides herself away in a cave after her brother Susanoo’s commits rebellious and sacrilegious acts against her, thereby throwing the world in wintry darkness, explains the importance given to the emergence of the sun at the New Year. Amaterasu, the legend says, is drawn from the cave in curiosity at the laughter evoked by another goddess’ bawdy dance, and the world is restored to light and springtime. This myth, along with the mating practices of most of the natural world, explains some of the erotic connotations of the word “spring” in Japan (as in “spring prints” or shunga).
One of the most famous prints of a New Year’s sunrise is the masterpiece by Choki, which shows a single courtesan holding the collar of her kimono as she watches the sun rise over the sea. Many other prints of the sunrise are also actually New Year prints.
Manzai and Shishimai
The traditional practice of manzai, an entertainment of dance, song and music typically performed by itinerants, traces its legacy all the way back to the primal scene where Amaterasu, Goddess of the Sun, is drawn from her cave by the bawdy dance of Ame no Uzume. The idea of meeting the new spring with music and free bodily movement is based on this mythical paradigm, and Edo manzai performers considered themselves descendents of Ame no Uzume, lending sacred authority to their performances.
Ukiyo-e prints of manzai emphasize the fun, free-spirited and childlike wonder of these performances, typically employing loose, flowing lines to suggest movement. Kuniyoshi has several fine prints of manzai performers, as does Hokusai. Toyokuni I has a fine triptych of them as part of the series of the months he did with Toyohiro.
Lion-dog dances, or shishimai, which derived from China, were also often performed at the New Year, sometimes as part of manzai. Two men would form the body of the lion dog under a single cloth, while the decorated head would twist and move about in an eye-catching manner. There are a great many shishimai prints in ukiyo-e, not all of them associated directly with the New Year, as shishimai became a part of the kabuki repertoire as well. Eisen, though, has a charming triptych of children playing with shishimai dancers at the New Year, and there are many similar prints.
Pine, plum and bamboo are said to be the “three friends of the cold season”. Though a typical New Year’s is a bit too early for actual plum blossoms, the pine and bamboo figure prominently in traditional New Year’s decorations. Pine, being evergreen, symbolizes constancy, while the bamboo, which bends but does not break, resilience-both pertinent metaphors for the passing of the seasons.
The display of green pine and bamboo arranged by the doors of homes is called the “kadomatsu” (“gate pine”). These are set up at New Year’s and remain for 14 days, a period called “matsu no uchi” (“within the pine”). Special ropes with zigzag streamers, called “shimenawa,” and generally used only at shrines, are also hung by gates and doorways, adding an aura of the sacred.
Both the kadomatsu and shimenawa often appear as motifs signaling the New Year in many Japanese prints, including prints of courtesans and actors offstage, as well as genre scenes and surimono.
The Renewal of Bonds: Surimono
Because the New Year spiritually marked a complete break with everything that had come before it, a virtual rebirth of the world, it was an important time not to re-center only one’s personal activities, but also to affirm and re-establish one’s connections with others. This could be done through a greeting, either in person or with the presentation of a note-often poetic-or a gift, including, for intimates, the toshidama (“year jewel”), coins wrapped in decorative paper.
Those familiar with the mid-nineteenth century work of the Utagawa School have no doubt seen the Toshidama form repeatedly, perhaps even without realizing it, for the Utagawa printmakers took this auspicious symbol as their emblem, and used it in titles and signature cartouches. Eighteenth century printmakers, including Kiyonaga and Shuncho, made the New Year visits of courtesans the subject of some fine triptychs, but the most important survival of this New Year practice is a whole genre of printmaking itself, surimono.
The surimono genre was born as a latter day version of the traditional poetic New Year greeting, only now printed rather than handwritten, and should be viewed in this context, as gift prints whose purpose was in part to affirm one’s bonds with others. Surimono, moreover, frequently present a kind of puzzle or riddle, with their webs of allusions and associated ideas, the resolution of which posits giver and receiver as like-minded. Symbolically, these gifts represent the experience of the New Year itself: an encounter with the new and unknown that is subsequently mapped backed onto the familiar, and ultimately found to be pleasurable.
Surimono are by no means the only Japanese prints dealing with the New Year, but they do provide the most extensive insight into New Year’s motifs, rituals and practices. In contemporary Japan, the social role of surimono has been taken over by nengajo, New Year greeting cards, which only rarely now contain poetry, poems no longer being the standard mode of formal communication and presentation.
The Seven Gods of Good Fortune and their Treasure Ship
One of the most colorful of New Year’s legends has it that the seven gods of good fortune, or shichifukujin, ride down from heaven into human harbors on the first three days of the New Year in their treasure ship (takarabune), bringing goodies for children. This bright-spirited scene, somewhat reminiscent of Santa Claus, is the subject of countless woodblock prints by artists from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, and a great deal of lore has developed around these seven gods of the New Year.
Their treasures, for example, are said to include a hat and robe of invisibility, an inexhaustible purse of gold, scrolls of wisdom, a divine robe of feathers, as well as jewels and rolls of brocade. Daikoku’s mallet, moreover, is said to produce coins when struck, and Hotei’s bag to contain endless treasures.
To each of the seven gods, moreover, particular positive qualities and roles have been assigned, so that together they can be seen to form the complete being or perfect happiness. Therefore, their combination is highly auspicious at the New Year. The bright, childlike spirit of the New Year is seen in many comic prints of the shichifukujin, particularly Hotei, whose “bag of treasures” frequently contains laughing children or treasures in other unexpected forms.
Utamaro has a comic triptych showing the seven gods playing party games in the pleasure quarters with courtesans, while Kunisada has one showing them entertaining a group of delighted children, both auspicious sets for the New Year. Quite unlike almighty Gods to be worshipped from afar, the shichifukujin took an active place in prints of daily life, sharing in these everyday activities and thereby enhancing them.
A Collection of Firsts
|First Singing – Sanju Rokkasen, 1893
|by Toshikata Mizuno 1866-1908
Each activity on New Year’s Day, being the first of the reborn world in the new cycle, assumed an added importance, as it would set the tone for the coming year.
Several New Year’s “firsts” assumed almost ritual proportions, including the year’s first writing, first dress, first water and first bathing. The year’s first calligraphy typically consisted of auspicious phrases, in some regions a formula for good fortune, with personal wishes or resolutions for the coming year.
Clothing for the New Year was typically worn for the first time then, adding to the sense of newness. Even the first drawing of water and the first bath of the year have ritual significance, and all of these activities can be found depicted, typically as a subtle background to a scene, in ukiyo-e.
The first dream of the year, or hatsu-yume, on the night after New Year’s Day, was traditionally thought to be a means of foretelling the nature of the coming year. Putting a drawing, painting or print of the takarabune beneath one’s pillow on New Year’s was said to bring good-auguring dreams. To dream of the takarabune itself was considered very lucky, as seen in a wonderful early triptych by Toyokuni I.
The most auspicious of dreams included Mt. Fuji, a hawk, and an eggplant, though any one of these components alone was a positive sign. One theory has it that this combination represents high (takai, also meaning expensive) things, the third element, eggplant, added as a joke since it was so pricey in ancient Japan.
Japanese prints of the takarabune are a constant, seasonal theme from the eighteenth century on, and no doubt those surviving are but a small representation of the total number made for use. These tended to be fairly formulaic, so that the same pattern, design and even text can be found on prints of different decades. Prints including the hawk, eggplant and Mt. Fuji also exist. Hokusai produced a set on this theme for surimono, and worked them into the design for his book, One Hundred Views of Mt. Fuji. Koryusai also has several prints including the auspicious combination.
New Year’s Games
|Playing hagoita on New Year’s Day, ca. 1904
|by Shuntei Miyagawa 1873-1914
Traditional New Year’s play tended to break down according to age and gender. Boys typically flew kites, while girls played with battledores and shuttlecocks (hanetsuki), though there was surely some overlap between the two. Adults, with children, sometimes played games with poetry, such as shell-matching with 36 poems or capping verses from the 100 poets (hyakunin isshu) with playing cards.
Flying a kite may seem like an innocent sort of play, but symbolically the kite represents a direct connection between the earthly and celestial realms, and so has become associated with religious festivals. Brightly colored and painted kites could entertain the gods, and the successful raising of a kite into the sky boded well for the coming year.
Battledores could be decorated with the faces of actors and courtesans, and a number of prints were made either directly for this practical purpose, or depicting famous faces on battledores within designs. Kunisada has several prints like this, as does Kunichika. Genre scenes of women or girls playing hanetsuki are also common. Eizan has a fine triptych of bijin playing among pine decorations, while the Meiji artists Shuntei designed some charming prints of girls playing battledore at New Year’s.
Courtesans playing the 100 Poets card game form the subject of a number of fine bijin works, including pieces by Eizan and Kunisada. This was also a common theme on surimono.
Day of the Rat Pine Pulling
|Maiko Playing Shuttlecock
|by Sadanobu III Hasegawa 1881-1963
The first day of the rat (ne no hi, zodiac signs being applied to days as well as to years) was celebrated each year in a manner quite at odds with contemporary conservationist mentality: people would go out into the fields or countryside, and while collecting fresh herbs for New Year’s soup, pull up pine shoots by their roots.
This practice was called komatsubiki, or pulling the little pines, and dates back to at least the eighth century. The pine, ever green, is a sacred plant, and used, as we have seen, in New Year’s decorations, to signify constancy. Removing pines seems to have had a practical as well as ritualistic function, however, as it cleared room in the fields for other plants to grow.
Pine pulling on the first day of the rat frequently figures as a subject in surimono, though less so in commercial prints.
Seven Herbs Soup
From the evening of the sixth day of the New Year, a special soup called o-kayu is prepared, using the seven herbs of spring (haru no nanakusa). Kayu is made by boiling cooked rice in water until it breaks down and forms a porridge-like texture, to which the seven herbs are added. Consuming this mixture is thought to bring health, good spirits and extended longevity for the coming year.
The actual composition of the seven herbs varies from region to region, but a typical group includes shepherd’s purse, chickweed, turnip, water dropwort, henbit, cudweed and radish root (in Japanese, nazuna, hakobe, suzuna, seri, hotokenoza, hahakogusa, and suzushiro). The herbs are prepared in a ritualistic manner, chopped 28 times on the evening of the sixth, then 21 more times on the morning of the seventh, before being placed in the soup.
The seven herbs frequently figure as a subject in surimono, though not so often in commercial prints.
The New Year season is without question the most developed and important of celebrations in the traditional Japanese festival calendar, a 15 day period in which time is counted in ritual and event, within which rich lore and significance has accreted around even simple activities and items of daily life.
It should be no surprise then that the New Year also plays a large part in Japanese prints, not only for the cycles of publishing, but the subjects of the prints themselves. Although the most detailed and closely focused of New Year’s prints are surimono, and many artists focused their attention onto this field around the New Year, there are also a great many commercial prints that represent New Year celebrations, or create auspicious scenes to go with New Year ritual and festivity.